Friday, January 31, 2014

GM EV1 Turns Up in China, Twice

GM EV1 China

GM’s EV1 is something of an automotive legend these days, with stories of unrestricted cars accelerating to nearly 300 km/h coming fast and hard from the mouths of the true believers. Most of the cars were crushed, however, in a move that many believe was motivated by corrupt government officials colluding with crooked oil company lobbyists. Today, less than 40 EV1s are believed to exist, and most of those are tucked away in museums … imagine our surprise, then, when news broke that not one, but TWO unknown examples of GM’s automotive unicorn had been discovered in China!
The first EV1 is a blue-green model that was found in China’s “National Electric Vehicle Experimental & Demonstration Area”, a government-owned center for the advancement of Chinese EV technology. Established in 1998, the facility is still fully functional today, importing several foreign examples of plug in cars for testing and reverse engineering.
The second car, a red EV1, is located in the Shanghai Auto Museum. The museum says it was a gift from the General Motors Heritage Collection, but it’s worth noting that both the red and the blue-green cars are fully functional “runners”, unlike the rest of the museum cars scattered throughout the world. Those cars are “rolling chassis”, which is to say complete, except for engine and transmission. As Car News China puts it, “it seems unlikely a test center would accept a deactivated powertrain, so it seems more likely China got it hands on two working examples in another way.”
My sister has a field day trophy she got in another way, too- and I’m sure it was gained just as legitimately as these two EV1s were. 


Sources | PhotosCar News China, via Motorpasion.

The Last Volkswagen Type 2 Bus Sent To German Museum


In 1957, Volkswagen began production of the Type 1 Kombi van in Brazil, and in 1995 began production of the Type 2 to meet increasing safety standards. Alas, the VW Type 2 Kombi has reached the end of the line, the very last production model is being shipped from Brazil to Hannover, Germany, where it will see out its days as a museum piece.
This last VW Kombi bus is a small but important part of Volkswagen’s history. While I’d never make the claim that the Volkswagen Type 2 bus is a “green” car (even though it can run on ethanol), I think it’s fair to say that its simple and rugged design have proven more than effective for the past 50+ years, just like the Mexican-built Beetle that only just went out of production. You just don’t get the same kind of utility out of today’s cars, and I can’t imagine any automaker building a current model car for decade upon decade. Those days, I hope, are over.
The Kombi bus has many fans in Brazil though, and Volkswagen had to double the offering of a “last edition” model from 600 to 1,200 units, despite a price tag of over $35,000. Production of the Kombi van in Brazil has surpassed 1.5 million units, making it among the most popular vehicles in this fast-growing country.
Those of you hoping to buy a modern take on a classic design, possibly converting it into a contemporary Westfalia camper, have unfortunately missed your chance With the retirement of the Brazilian Kombi, there are no more old Volkswagens in production, at least on this side of the planet, marking the end of an era that has lasted a very long time.


Source: Volkswagen

Renault Fluence Z.E. Quietly Discontinued


While the Nissan Leaf electric car has seen sales surpass 100,000 units worldwide, its French ally Renault hasn’t had nearly as much success selling EVs. Production of the Renault Fluence Z.E. electric sedan has been quietly discontinued due to low sales and the bankruptcy of Project Better Place.
The bankruptcy of Project Better Place is a main contributing factor to the end of Fluence Z.E. electric sedan, as Renault had been building a special, battery-swappable version specifically for Better Place. Renault actually took the first steps towards ending production of the electric mid-size sedan in May of 2013 by halting production once the fate of Better Place became public. While Renault also offers a version with a permanent, rechargeable battery, sales were not strong enough to justify continued production.
That doesn’t mean Renault is without any electric vehicles though. It still has the Leaf-based Zoe Z.E.the Kangoo electric van, and the best-selling EV in all of Europe, the Renault Twizy. The Fluence Z.E also will live on in a way though, as the platform underpins a joint project by Renault and Samsung in Korea, called the Renault Samsung SM3 ZE. This largely identical car has a standard, permanent battery, but thanks to extra support from the South Korean government, has been doing much better than its European cousin. Some Fluence Z.E. customers also remain adamant in their love and support for these discontinued EVs.
For now it seems electric cars still work best as either affordable compacts or luxury-laden full-size sedans. Maybe the mid-size segment just isn’t ready for electric cars?

Source: Gas2.0

Sci-Fi Transit System Combines Cars With Maglev Trains


Humanity has arrived at a literal crossroads, where the benefits of personal transportation are butting against the need for a more efficient means of transit. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could combine both? A sci-fi transit concept called the AKA24 gives drivers the option of total control on local roads, or of letting a computer take over on a high-speed maglev line.
Designed by Chuang Dong, Zhen Qiu and Haowen Deng, the AKA24 is something that would be more at home in the world of Blade Runner or The Fifth Element (shoutout to Leeloo). Using specially designed four-wheel cars, these single-person pods can be driven independently, or attached to a sideways maglev line, like those that zip across Japan and China. When drivers get close enough to the maglev line, the cars “flip” sideways and latch onto the line. Occupants need not worry though, as an independent pod swings to keep passengers properly oriented at all times.
It literally turns the idea of roads and railways on its side, and one that has some merit. By building up, instead of sideways, designers could be large vertical high-speed “roads” that these special cars could attach to. You could squeeze a lot more vehicles into a vertical space, especially in a congested urban setting. It’s a skyscraper-inspired road, and while this particular design is unlikely to ever see the light of day, it’s an inspirational design that could inspire future sci-fi novels.
While these concepts aren’t good for much more than inspiration, all it takes is one really good idea to change the world. Just ask Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. For the record though, I still prefer the Hyperloop.


Source: DVice

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mitsubishi Motors North America Factory Tour

Normal Factory Tour

Nestled into the plains of Normal, Illinois and about the size of a small planet, Mitsubishi Motors North America’s factory will build about 70,000 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport models this year. That much I knew. What I didn’t realize was how much was really going on at the old Diamond-Star plant, or how much work MMNA put into making sure things are done right.
My tour began a few hours earlier as I drove out from Chicago early that Friday morning. The traffic was relatively light on I-55, and the AWD system on the 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport I was driving made short work of whatever snow and ice was on the road. At a tick over 70 MPH over the bitterly cold, two hour long drive, the Outlander gave back 25.8 MPG, according to its trip computer.


Not bad.
Once I got to Normal, IL, it was easy enough to find the MMNA factory. As I said, it’s the size of a planet, and seemed almost impossibly large- even knowing, as I did, that the plant pushed out nearly a quarter of a million cars per year back in the heyday of the Mitsubishi Eclipse/Eagle Talon twins. In the parking lot, I was greeted by a number of iMiEV electric cars …

Normal, IL Mitusbishi iMiEV EVs

… which served to let me know both that I was in the right place, and that Mitsubishi’s (and, indeed, Normal’s) commitment to EVs is a real thing.
Once inside, I met with Mitsubishi North America’s COO Jerry Berwanger. Berwanger is a gear head of the first order. He had more than 20 years’ experience at Ford before coming to sit in the big chair at Mitsubishi, and is capable of talking about his show-winning custom Harley-Davidsons, his Plymouth-powered “rat rod” pickup, his goals for the MMNA factory, and Mitsubishi’s excellent relationship with the UAW with equal knowledge, equal pride, and equal excitement.
“We’re the only transplant (foreign manufacturer) in the US that has a deal with the UAW,” says Jerry, as he pours me a coffee. “Mercedes doesn’t have one. BMW, Nissan, none of them.”
“Doesn’t that make it harder for you? Like, if GM or Ford does something the UAW doesn’t like, would your guys strike, as well?” I asked, like a good little conservabot.
“We have a no strike clause in our agreement with them,” he said.
“How’d you manage that?” I asked.
I was floored. GM, Ford, Chrysler- all the big automakers let thousands upon thousands of workers go in the 90s and 00s, even before the crash in 2009. The idea that a factory which had, at one point, churned out 250,000 cars per year was carrying the same staff now, at a bit under 70,000, blew my mind. “How do you manage that?”
“It wasn’t easy,” he said.
I suddenly remembered reading about workers doing community service in the area, cleaning up the factory, planting trees, etc. It was a neat image, and the idea that Mitsubishi’s fate in North America was tied to its workers’ that directly gave me all sorts of warm and fuzzy feelings.
After a bit more small talk, we headed down to the factory floor. Picture-taking was a no-no, but if you’ve ever seen an episode of How It’s Made, you’ll have a good sense of what it looked like in the Mitsu factory. Except, you know, a thousand times bigger and louder.
Our first stop was a plastic molding station, where the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport’s plastic bumpers and fenders are made. The machines press plastic pellets into a mould under tremendous pressures, and the parts are then trimmed and checked for compliance. If they pass, they go on a cart to be picked later in the assembly process. If they don’t, they get chopped up, and the plastic bits get used again in another part.
Instant recycling.
Berwanger explains that, in most factories, the plastic parts are shipped in from a supplier. If they don’t fit or aren’t right for some other reason, the plant might be stuck until the next batch arrives. At MMNA, the plastic compound, the mix’s temperature, even the moulding dies themselves can be changed and corrected. It keeps the plant moving and reduces the need to ship and transport a bunch of plastic parts.
Jerry also explained that MMNA uses a number of recycled and recyclable materials, in addition to the plastic. “A lot of the sheet steel we use is recyclable, and we send the metal we trim or cut off to scrap, where it gets melted back into the mix and sent back to us as a new roll of steel.”
We geeked out over the high-precision robots throughout the MMNA factory, and stopped at several points along the line to see some of the more interesting robots. Some of the best included the wheel-mounting ‘bot, as well as the robotic gymnasts that spun and contorted themselves with laser-guided precision to mount the dashboard and seats in the cars, without touching or scratching any other part. I’d even say the process looked “like a sort of mechanical ballet”, if I wasn’t certain someone cleverer had thought of it before me.

MMNA Assembly Line
MMNA Assembly Line

One thing that struck me as odd, some of the Mitsubishi Outlander Sports I was seeing had blacked-out grilles, black roof rails, and rode on steely wheels with deep, all-season treaded tires. “What are those?” I asked.
“Those are going to Russia,” explained Berwanger. He went on to explain that, for the most part, the Russian-bound cars were identical to the US versions. Here and there, however, there were differences. Different colors, interior trim, wheel options, and differences in the exterior lighting were the most obvious. Up close, the interior of the Russian cars had a few less buttons, but were still obviously quality pieces.

Mitsubishi Outlander Russia

Russia is the factory’s biggest export market, I was told. Followed by a few other South American and eastern European nations, all of whom could get the Outlander Sport in a paramilitary-looking beige with blacked-out trim look.
“That would sell like crazy here in the ‘States,” I told Berwanger, who gave me a doubtful sort of nod in polite response. Apparently, MMNA’s market studies suggest otherwise.
Once we cleared the assembly line, we checked out MMNA’s quality control area. Here, cars are driven on rolling chassis dynos and the freshly-minted Mitsubishi Outlander Sports are checked by an auditor in a specially lit room. Any flaws the auditor finds are rated on a 1, 3, or 5 scale. The idea is that, if a flaw is found and rated a “3″, then “3 out of 10″ customers would notice it. 1s and 3s are corrected, but if a 5 is found, then the workers on-hand have to go out into the lot and check the day’s batch of cars. If the flaw is found in another car, they all get pulled back in for the fix.
That’s some pretty serious QC, and the “polar vortices” we’ve been seeing in Illinois this month have to be pretty serious motivators to get the job right.
Here’s a few more photos of that process, which really impressed me. What about you, dear readers? Do you think the system works, or- more importantly- do you think Mitsubishi should offer a black-grilled, off-roady version of its Outlander Sport here in the US? Let us know what you think in the comments, below.


Source: Gas 2, photos courtesy MMNA.

Studies Conclude Car Ownership Is On The Decline


Reports from two different, respected institutions have been making waves in the automotive world for coming to the same conclusion; America, and the world, are past the point of automotive saturation, and rather than seeing sales expand, in a few short decades the auto industry could experience a massive contraction to the tune of tens of millions of units.
The University of Michigan’s Transportation Institute released a study on the car driving and buying habits of Americans, and it isn’t a very rosy picture. Since 2007, the number of households without a car at all has increased from 8.7% to 9.2%. In major metro areas, where many young people are flocking to, the number of people who don’t own a car is even higher.
In New York City, 56% of people don’t own a car, meaning car owners are actually a minority. 38% of Washington D.C. go without their own car, as do 37% of Boston residents. Surprisingly, Philadelphia (33%) is less into the whole car ownership thing than San Francisco (31%), though a shockingly high number of Motor City residents (26%) don’t partake in their city’s primary industry.
IHS Automotive, meanwhile, put out another story that looks at the auto industry as a whole and the prospective markets going forward. While many auto companies are touting growth in developing nations, sales in countries like China, Brazil, India, and Russia are hitting a wall. While the Chinese auto market is now the biggest in the world, the government is currently working to seriously curtail car ownership as incredible levels of pollution choke cities like Beijing.
The IHS report says that by 2035, the auto industry could see sales fall by some 30 million units annually, and worldwide car usage could drop to just 250 million vehicles. It is currently estimated that there are as many as a billion cars on the road, somewhere, these days, which would mean auto ownership would have to pretty much take a nosedive. That seems either crazy optimistic or apocalyptically devastating, depending on whom you ask. Then again, the first signs of rebellion against car ownership are already cropping up.
Some cities are going even further though, laying down plans to outright ban cars from the inner metro. Hamburg, Germany is working out the details of a centralized “Green Network” plan that by 2034 would ban cars from 40% of the city proper. Could an American metro like New York deliver on a similar plan? It wasn’t all that long ago that cars didn’t even exist, but cities like New York and Hamburg have been around for centuries.
I love cars and all, but as many millennials already know, it’s both difficult and expensive to keep a car in a crowded urban area. So many of us are learning to just live without a car, or at best splitting a car with our spouse. Then again, there’s good reason to believe that we haven’t hit “peak car” quite yet. Maybe it’s time we seriously start considering if some places wouldn’t be better off without the congestion or convenience offered by cars.
One thing we’ll have to figure out…what to do with all of those empty parking lots?

Image: Flickr

Sunday, January 26, 2014

2014 Cadillac ELR Leases at $699 Per Month


GM’s first luxury plug-in hybrid, the Cadillac ELR, has set a lease price $699 per month, which is a lot more palatable to many pocketbooks than the $75,000 MSRP.
Winner of the 2014 Green Car Technology Award, the Cadillac ELR costs between $75,000 and $82,135. For current owners and lessees of any GM vehicles from 1999 or newer, Cadillac is offering a special deal of $699 per month for 39 months, plus $4,999 due at signing, for a total of $27,261 over the lease period. Tax, title, license, dealer fees, and optional equipment will add a bit more upfront, but still not a bad price for a brand new Caddy.
However, there are some things to think about with this offer. Mileage must be less than 32,500 for the 39 months of the lease. Every mile over 32,500 incurs a mileage charge of $0.25/mile. The average American driver covers 13,476 miles per year in a car, so if you’re an average driver (and with a car this luxurious and fun to drive, that would be difficult), that would add another $2,824.25 to the total cost.
Another thing to think about is the balloon payment at the end. It will be well over $50,000, should you choose to buy the Cadillac ELR, though refinancing in three years is an option as well. Trading the car in for a newer model is another option. When I had a balloon payment waiting for me at the end a lease, it always felt like something ominous looming in the distance.
If you might want in on the Cadillac ELR, you better hurry as this deal ends at the end of January.  You have just over a week to think about it.
With a range of 35 miles from electricity stored in the battery and a total range of 340 miles on electricity stored in the battery plus electricity produced by the generator, the Cadillac ELR can get you around town or on a road trip with no problem. The Cadillac ELR makes more horsepower and is slightly faster than its cousin, the Chevy Volt, though numerous outlets have called the Cadillac hybrid overpriced, especially compared with the similarly-priced Tesla Model S.
Maybe this lease offer will convince some would-be Tesla buyers to give the green Caddy a chance instead.

Source: Cadillac

RYNO Motors’ Crazy Electric Unicycle, the Interview

Ryno Uniciycle

This is the single-wheel, single-seater electric RYNO commuter bike- and it is utterly, wonderfully insane. “It’s different. You have to make an emotional commitment, sign an ‘emotional contract’ to learn to ride it and be good at it,” says RYNO Motors’ CEO Chris Hoffman. “It’s like being a kite-boarder. It takes time, to figure it out, but you get better. Getting better is how you engaged with it. You need to embrace the learning curve as a way to interact with the RYNO, and getting to interact with the bike (on that level) is part of the appeal.”
I spoke to Chris about the RYNO last week. I’m not sure what I expected from the guy, but I was surprised to find a true enthusiast who was inspired to build the RYNO by one of his daughters’ Japanese anime movies. “She saw one of the characters riding something like this, and asked me if I could build something like that,” he explained. “The RYNO is the end result of that.”
For those of you not familiar with the RYNO, it’s basically a much cooler version of a Segway. It stays vertical, like a Segway, but it leans and counter-steers like a motorcycle. Unlike the Segway, however, the RYNO rider doesn’t tower over his/her fellow pedestrians. “You’re basically at normal height,” says Hoffman. “It has a much smaller presence. You can maneuver more easily with it, even take it on a bus or a train.”
I like the idea of getting the RYNO on a train, riding it into the city, then, commuting the rest of the way on the electric unicycle. Image and “convenience” wise, then, it’s definitely a step up from the Segway.
Now, what I’m about to say might seem nuts, but stay with me.

The RYNO is NOT Street Legal

That’s right, kids- despite the RYNO’s sporting looks and high-efficiency LED “headlamps”, Chris said the bike was not intended to be used as a street-legal motorcycle. It’s not even supposed to be ridden in a bike lane. Instead, the RYNO falls under that weird, Segway-occupied area of “personal transporter”, and is meant to be ridden on sidewalks.
I’m torn by this realization, as I feel that anything traveling 10 miles per hour (the top speed on the RYNO, by the way, is 12.5 MPH) has no business on sidewalks with the other humans walking at- what? 3? 4 MPH, if they’re really booking it to work? Besides that, people stop without brake lights, turn suddenly, walk around each other … the RYNO, and vehicles like the Segway, for that matter, have no place in that ecosystem.
I’m not sure where that leaves the RYNO, then. It’s exactly the kind of thing I’d spend stupid money on. If I can’t take it on the street, though? I guess you could make the argument that the RYNO would be a strong competitor to electric bicycles like the new Smart electric drive and Local Motors’ electric Cruiser, in terms of practicality- and you’d be right. The question you’d have to ask yourself, then, would be whether or not the image you portray with the RYNO vs. the image you portray with the Smart was worth the price bump.
I’ll probably still buy one, but I’d buy like, 6 of them if they were street legal at 25 MPH, you know? What do you guys think? Is the $4500 RYNO worth the price premium over the similarly capable, $2950 Smart- or would it be nuts to buy either one when $3000 would buy you a lot of classic motorcycle? Let us know how you feel about the RYNO in the comments, below.

RYNO Motors Electric Unicycle
RYNO Motors Electric Unicycle
RYNO Motors Electric Unicycle
RYNO Motors Electric Unicycle
RYNO Motors Electric Unicycle
RYNO Motors Electric Unicycle

Source: Gas 2, photos from RYNO Motors.

The Ford Fairmont Wagon EV Conversion


Electric vehicle conversions have been around for decades, though most of these early, primitive conversions didn’t last long beyond their intended useful life. This Ford Fairmont EVA Conversion is a rare survivor from the early days of electrification, and for just $1,000 it could be your little slice of electric car history. Make sure you bring your tools though.
, The Current Fare, as it was called, was built by EV conversion company EVA, who claimed their electric wagon could go up to 40 miles between charges. Makes today’s “short range” electric cars like the Nissan Leaf seem like endurance competitors in comparison. Power came from 22 six-volt batteries powering a single 29 horsepower electric motor, which made the Current Fare a woefully under-powered vehicle, even by the low standards of the early 80s. BMW put out an even lamer EV with just 19 miles of range, while Mercedes built a plug-in hybrid wagon in a bid to compete with gas-powered cars, but that project was also a dead end.
This particular Fairmont wagon EV was enlisted to serve the Navy, and could be had with either a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. While it could make a fun and interesting restoration project, methinks the lead-acid batteries have long since eaten through the floorboards of the wagon, if they’re still there at all.
EVA also converted the early Ford Escort, calling it the Evcort, as well as the Change The Pace AMC Pacer EV conversion. Alas, clever names couldn’t overcome primitive EV technology, and cars like the Current Fare never stood a chance on America’s roads, limiting them to short-range fleet work for the government or private industry. It’s taken another 30 years to get to the point where electric cars can actually work as commuter cars.
It’d take more than a fresh coat of to bring this particular early EV back from the dead, as its been sitting immobile in Southern California for many many years. That said, there’s plenty of room for a modern lithium-ion battery pack and more powerful motor. Perhaps a second life as an electric drag car is what this EVA conversion really deserves.


Virginia Repeals $100 Hybrid Vehicle Tax

Hybrid Vehicle Parking Space

Despite the growing popularity of hybrid vehicle taxes and electric vehicle taxes among state legislatures, Virginia has decided to repeal their hybrid vehicle tax.
The logic behind Virginia’s hybrid vehicle tax was similar to North Carolina’s electric vehicle tax. Hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles, as well as very fuel efficient vehicles, use much less gas (or none at all) than the average car. Repairs and maintenance for roadways and various projects, such as highway safety studies, are paid for with funds collected via the gas tax.

Virginia State Gas Tax

Virginia has been dealing with a shortfall in tax revenues for its transportation system. Many states are facing similar problems, since gas taxes in most places haven’t increased in many years.
In 2013, Virginia reformed the state gas tax. Instead of a flat per-gallon tax of $0.175, Virginia began charging a percentage tax. The tax rate is based on 3.5% of a statewide average cost for a gallon of gas, taken over a six-month period. The initial rate was set at $0.111 per gallon, based on a statewide average of $3.17 per gallon. That rate can increase if the price of gas goes up, but 11.1 cents per gallon is a minimum rate and the tax can never go below that.
Although in 2013, the new gas tax rate caused the price of gas to drop by six cents per gallon, legislators are optimistic that the tax will eventually begin to pay for repairs and maintenance to the road system, as it was originally intended.

Virginia Hybrid Vehicle Tax

Changing the state gas tax from a flat rate to a percentage affects those cars with lower gas mileage the most. Hybrid vehicles and fuel efficient cars still pay less to drive on the same roads. The Virginia legislature attempted to make it more fair by charging hybrid vehicle owners an annual fee of $64. This is the equivalent of driving 14,183 miles in a car getting the U.S. average of 24.6 miles per gallon – a bit more than the American average of 13,476 miles per year.
Hybrid vehicle owners argued that it wasn’t fair to single them out for this tax, since many non-hybrid vehicles have better gas mileage than hybrids. Those other vehicles weren’t being taxed separately. The legislature agreed that it wasn’t fair and repealed the hybrid vehicle tax earlier this week. Hybrid vehicle owners can apply for a refund.
The repeal of the hybrid vehicle tax will reduce Virginia’s tax revenues by about $11 million, a drop in the bucket of the $626 million the state gas tax is expected to bring in this year.

Source:  Green Car Reports  ImageKevin Dooley/CC